Couples - How to Approach Those Difficult Conversations

One of the most common problems that drives couples to seek counseling is communication breakdown. It makes sense; broken communication can be really hard to piece back together on your own.

Maybe you and your partner argue frequently, you walk on eggshells to avoid a fight, or the air in your home crackles with tension. Maybe there is a shadow looming over your relationship that neither of you is eager to acknowledge.

An inability to communicate with your partner obscures the trust and intimacy your relationship needs to survive. You care deeply for your partner, but you’re increasingly frustrated in your attempts to uncover that love during times of emotionally-driven conflict, defensiveness, and silence.

When it comes to communication in your relationship, the stakes are high. Knowing this, how can you approach a difficult conversation you know needs to happen? The answer: Avoid harsh start-up.

The Harsh Start-Up

Researcher John Gottman’s term, “harsh start-up,” refers to the hurtful approach and first words of a combative discussion. What’s the big deal about a harsh start-up?

Because both you and your partner need to feel safe and cared for in your relationship, the words you choose when you’re talking to your partner really do matter. A perceived verbal attack can elicit a response that has less to do with answering your complaint, and more to do with defensiveness and throwing the hurt right back at you.

In other words, how you approach a sensitive issue with your partner can determine how well you will listen to one other. Of course, when you’re stuck having the same argument for a month or longer, or you’ve been holding in resentments for fear of setting your partner off, acidic words come much more easily than the kind ones.

Gottman and his team of researchers discovered that most conversations beginning with harsh start-up end negatively, and without resolution.

Imagine that your partner addressed an issue in your relationship, starting with, “You are always selfish,” or “Your problem is this.” You would likely feel an emotional wound opening up right away. Maybe you’d respond defensively, refusing the idea that you’ve played a role in your relationship problems. Maybe you would become contemptuous toward your partner. Perhaps, you would build a wall around yourself in protection, too emotionally overwhelmed to contribute to any kind of discussion.

Whatever your partner’s initial intentions, his or her first chosen words on the subject have brought you both into fight-or-flight territory—not a place you want to be when you’re in a relationship for the long-haul.

The Antidote to Harsh Start-Up

While taking a moment to choose your words carefully can be difficult when you’re hurt or angry, taking a moment to think about what you’re going to say could bring peace to your relationship—a reward that’s definitely worth the extra effort.
Start by reducing criticism of your partner. If you find yourself using the word “you” frequently when bringing up a difficult subject with your partner, what was intended to be a productive conversation, may end up being an emotionally charged conflict.

When something your partner does has upset you, and you want to hold him or her accountable, notice the moment. Your heart rate rises. You feel only your frustration. In those few seconds, try to remember that you would probably rather help prevent the problem from recurring, than cause your partner pain.

When you teach yourself to start a discussion without criticism, by saying “I feel” instead of “you are,” you’ll soon notice that your own defenses come down too. Try this next time: “I feel ‘x’ when ‘y’ happens. I need ‘z’.” For example, “I feel sad when we don’t do anything together on the weekend. I need some one-on-one time with you to feel connected.” Juxtapose the soft start-up above to this harsh start-up: “You never spend time with me on the weekend. I guess you just aren’t interested in doing anything with me.” The difference in communication is clear. The soft start-up approaches with an invitation to communicate productively. The harsh start-up criticizes your partner.

The reason a gentler start-up works is because kind words create a discussion in which you and your partner are still a team, not boxers in the ring. With the help of a couples counselor, you and your partner can recognize painful communication habits, and learn to replace them in a way that allows respect and admiration to remain, even when you argue.